I’ve found myself giving cautionary talks on the future of the Internet, or possible futures, plural – the real danger that the Internet and the World Wide Web that operates on it will become less open, perhaps become fragmented, balkanized into closed networks that no longer cooperate, filled with walled gardens with various filters and constraints, and no longer be a platform with low barriers to entry and assurance that if you connect something, anyone anywhere in the world will have access to it. The Internet would no longer be the powerful engine for innovation and communication it has been.
Tim Berners-Lee, who created the World Wide Web, writes about this in Scientific American, saying that some of the web’s “successful inhabitants have begun to chip away at its principles. Large social-networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web. Wireless Internet providers are being tempted to slow traffic to sites with which they have not made deals. Governments—totalitarian and democratic alike—are monitoring people’s online habits, endangering important human rights.”
If we, the Web’s users, allow these and other trends to proceed unchecked, the Web could be broken into fragmented islands. We could lose the freedom to connect with whichever Web sites we want. The ill effects could extend to smartphones and pads, which are also portals to the extensive information that the Web provides.
Read Berners-Lee’s important longer piece, “Long Live the Web.”
My next scheduled talk about the future of the Internet is January 5 at noon, at Link Coworking.
“Net neutrality” and “freedom to connect” might be loaded or vague terminologies; the label “Open Internet” is clearer, more effective, no way misleading. A group of Internet experts and pioneers submitted a paper to the FCC that defines the Open Internet and explains how it differs from networks that are dedicated to specialized services, and why that distinction is imortant. It’s a general purpose network for all, and can’t be appreciated (or properly regulated) unless this point and its implications are well understood. I signed on (late) to the paper, which is freely available at Scribd, and which is worth reading and disseminating even among people who don’t completely get it. I think the meaning and relevance of the distinction will sink in, even with those who don’t have deep knowledge of the Internet and, more generally, computer networking. The key point is that “the Internet should be delineated from specialized services specifically based on whether network providers treat the transmission of packets in special ways according to the applications those packets support. Transmitting packets without regard for application, in a best efforts manner, is at the very core of how the Internet provides a general purpose platform that is open and conducive to innovation by all end users.”
Cory Doctorow was in Austin yesterday on a book tour for his new young adult novel, For the Win. Cory says he likes writing young adult fiction because it’s for people who use it, not just for entertainment, but to figure out the world. Cory introduced me to another science fiction writer, Steven Brust, now living in Austin. I love the information-dense, visionary, ironic and funny conversations science fiction geeks have, just casually over dinner or drinks. Cory’s not just a science fiction geek, though – he’s also an Internet maven and activist, especially focused on issues like copyfight and freedom to connect. Cory is former EFF online activist and board member of EFF-Austin, which threw an after party, called “Whuffiefest,” following his book signing. Produced by Plutopia Productions, the event had a large and enthusiastic turnout.